Whitewashing Hollywood

Hollywood film is a vehicle in which sociocultural context can be examined by the roles, or lack of roles, offered to actors of diverse backgrounds, effectively commenting on the social mores of the day. The representation and roles of cultural groups, such as the ‘blacks’ (including the Negro, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and darker citizenry) within Hollywood film, speaks volumes about how ‘white’ America views the contributions and role of others within society. As the “white self is still endowed in today’s world with much of the privilege achieved during the colonial era, the way in which white people are presented [and their interactions with other races] in the media is important for everyone, not just for whites” (Vera & Gordon 2003, p. 2). Influence of casting directors, writers who create hegemonic characters, film studios and agencies, critics, audiences and Hollywood award academies, can be held accountable for oppressed culturally diverse voices and experiences within film. Pigeon-holing of coloured actors into certain formulaic character roles that are deemed suitable for only black actors proves that there is limited opportunity for diversity and black representation within the white hegemonic film industry, that is Hollywood.

America’s greatest cultural export and widely recognised cultural commodity is the film industry. “Hollywood can be read as an ethnographer, reinforcing the hegemony of whiteness onscreen by producing experiences of the black racial types it creates” (Negra 2013, p. 1).  Hollywood has framed the ‘black’ protagonist into certain moulds, such as the ‘magical black’, the thug figure, the athlete with super-human strength, the charismatic sidekick, the ‘help’ or the token coloured detective. “Onscreen and off, the history of the Western culture has typically denied blacks… of historical reference, except as former slaves or savages” (Snead 1994, p. 3). Pigeon-holing actors into roles exploring the history of slavery and colonialism has proven to be an enslavement of black artists in a post-cultural context. Too often the black actor will play the antagonist, challenging the hegemonic community, protected by the white man.  Mixed-race protagonists are typically tragic figures, self-loathing beauties, who rarely find solace or love in the black community in which they are a part of. Said actors are rarely the subject of romantic film, nor do they play roles representative of intellect, power or influence.

“Black skin on-screen became a complex code for various things, depending on the social self-conception and positioning of the viewed; it could as easily connote white superiority and self-regard as black inferiority” (Snead 1994, p. 2). Whilst these roles provide an avenue for a more diverse representation of people in Hollywood film, the pigeon-holing of coloured actors is detrimental to the plight of black artists in Hollywood, seeking work and representation in universal film. Herman Vera (2003, p. 8) concedes “many white male moviemakers are relatively liberal in their personal politics; yet when it comes to racial matters…they still offer up a mostly sanitized and whitewashed view of the racial and other social history of the United States.” This whitewashing in Hollywood has of recent been criticised, with roles created for black actors played by actors of white heritage, creating an inauthentic representation of the protagonists’ experience. Inauthentic castings include Emma Stone in “Aloha” as a partially Chinese character, Jake Gyllenhaal as “The Prince of Persia”, both of which are examples of the black voice and experience being pacified by the white actor.

Whitewashing has been further proliferated in film with the re-emergence of nineteenth century blackface practices. A form of theatrical makeup, where non-coloured people are painted black to feign a stereotype such as the “happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation” and representing the black citizenry as jovial and unaware of the second-class slave treatment they received. The inextricable relationship between whitewashing of casted actors and blackface can be evidenced in the culturally appropriated role of Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in ‘A Mighty Heart’, outraging black campaign organisations.

As an internationally acclaimed white woman who campaigns for various social justice causes, Angelina Jolie engaged in mild blackface by being lathered in body paint to match the mixed-race skin tone necessary for the protagonist. Whilst Mariane Pearl expressed an indifference to this process, questions have been raised about the appropriateness of casting and whether an opportunity was taken from a budding young coloured actress, who has limited options in the Hollywood film industry. Further, actors of mixed descent are rejected for the binary roles of white or black, as they fit into neither category. As a Dominican with Puerto Rican heritage, Zoe Saldana was criticised forquote-i-ve-witnessed-racism-all-my-life-and-of-course-there-s-racism-and-discrimination-in-zoe-saldana-143-92-60 playing famous performer within the civil rights era, Nina Simone. Saldana was directed to darken her complexion with makeup and wear a prosthetic nose to liken her appearance to the iconic figure. Many groups opposed the film, arguing that this performance was a subtle reincarnation of blackface, whereas others praised casting directors for offering a woman of colour a role that a white starlet, stripping women of African descent of limited roles available.

Founder of Black Entertainment Television, Robert L Johnson who played a role in casting Saldana, compared the blackface campaign to the offensive and belittling practices of the “brown paper bag test”, which saw the use of a paper bag as a colour comparison to the negro community. Outcome of said tests would determine how what social class and institutions the individual would be able to access. “To say that I’m gonna cast a movie, I’ve gotta hold a brown paper bag up to the actresses and say, ‘Oh sorry, you can’t play her.’ Who’s to decide when you’re black enough?” Johnson said (Child 2016, p. 1). Actress Eva Longoria criticised that she was unable to extend her acting repertoire past the over-sexualised Hispanic woman. Increasingly she was denied Hispanic roles as she was said to not be Hispanic looking and acting enough. “Some white male casting director was dictating what it meant to be Latin. He decided I needed an accent. He decided I should have darker-colored skin… so they don’t understand you should be looking for way more colors of the rainbow within that one ethnicity” (Stump 2016, p. 1). Both Zoe Saldana and Eva Longoria alike are representative of a trend denying artists access to roles that they are culturally akin to, uncovering the entrenched biases black actors encounter working in the whitewashed Hollywood film industry. Thus, the Hollywood film industry communicates a limited role for African-Americans or those who are not white, reflecting the social mores and status within the United States.

Few black actors have been able to transcend the influence and oppressive nature of their race and colour, when seeking roles. Leading actors such as Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Shemar Moore, Eddy Murphy, Samuel L. Jackson and Forest Whitaker are examples of this minority, who are considered actors and not merely “black actors”. Gaining this status in Hollywood is considerably more difficult for leading women. In the case that coloured women are offered a leading role, it is too often attributed to their sexual prowess such as the case of Halle Berry or Vanessa Williams. Upcoming English star Idres Elba this year stars in four notable films as a lead protagonist, yet his face and physical attributes will not be visible in any of them. In Zootopia, The Jungle Book and Finding Dory Elba plays a voiceover role, whereas in Star Trek he is painted a different colour and is unrecognisable with facial prosthetics (Buchanan). It has become the norm and easiest way for coloured actors to star in blockbuster films, where their skin tone or physical attributes are unrecognisable. This concerning trend can be compared to white actors and how rarely notable actors are painted another colour or altered physically until they are unrecognisable. Consequently, Elba recently addressed English Parliament about Diversity in the media, recounting “when a script called or a black man, it wasn’t describing a character. It was describing a skin colour. A white man or a Caucasian – was described as a man with a twinkle in his eye.” Calling for a vaster representation shed light on the unconscious biases through the empirical experiences of a man who left Britain for Hollywood, not because he was after greater roles and recognition, but because there were no more roles he could play. Thus, the impact coloured actors can make in the media industry, irrespective of their heritage is limited significantly merely by the physical attribute of skin pigment.

There is a shared responsibility within the Hollywood film industry in keeping film directors accountable for the decisions that they make and how they frame the experiences of the oppressed. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (OSCAR) Awards is one the most acclaimed and prestigious awards, dedicated to discussing and acknowledging the contributions of American film to the international community. Over the past eighty-eight years of the Oscars have lacked diversity by those nominated and the honorary members of the Oscar Hall of Fame. For the second year in a row there has been minimal recognition of the creative work and stories of racial minorities in film. Whilst multiple films were released within the past two years following the lives, history and experiences of black people, no black actors or work of black directors and visionaries were nominated for a major Oscar Award. Over the past five years, merely nine non-white actors have been nominated for Academy Awards, with six percent of nominees being non-white actors within the history of the Academy operating (Gray 2016, p. 1). Whilst few actors have been recognised for their work, many fear that these nominations are tokenistic in nature and only occur when the nominee’s performance is so memorable that the Academy has no other option but to nominate, otherwise a major public outcry and investigation could uncover the inherent racism taking place in the body. Further, it was uncovered in 2012, that “honorary members of the Oscar Hall of Fame… that “of the around 6,000 members, 94 per cent were white and 76 per cent were male, the paper found” (Alexander 2016, p. 1). Hegemony within the most prestigious and highly recognised Hollywood award is reflected within which actors, directors and film themes are explored and awarded.

Furthermore, earlier this year, #OscarsSoWhite trended worldwide in response to the omission of black and mixed race nominees in the top four categories of awards, irrespective of the countless films released last year about the history of blacks. The controversy shed light on the institutionalised and entrenched racism and the lack of acclaim given to an actor of a vast backgrounds. In protest, many white and non-white actors vowed to not attend the Awards in the future, until a further investigation and steps were to be adopted to encourage diverse representation. The Academy counteracted the internet sensation by claiming that by Chris Rock hosting the event, this displayed a dedication to appreciating black artists. Jada Pinkett Smith refused to attend any further Oscar Ceremonies, proclaiming “people of colour are always welcomed to give out awards…even entertain, but we are rarely acknowledged for our artistic accomplishments” (Latif 2016, p. 1). Director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Awards Ms Cheryl Boone Isaccs, herself an African-American woman, committed to “increasing the diversity of voices, opinions and experiences” of those who are nominated and awarded (Alexander 2016, p. 1). The Academy further invited a record number of diverse artists to join in June of this year, to counteract the negative feedback within the twitter-sphere and beyond. Whilst the new 322 annual members shows a willingness to allow access to diverse groups, Academy members are still overwhelmingly white, aged males. It is evident that bias towards whites within Hollywood that historically deflected from the plight of diverse groups, has come under scrutiny, in the hope of allowing diverse groups more artistic freedoms.

Hollywood markets itself as an elite cross-section of society, a group of uniquely diverse and talented individuals representing all in film and other art forms. By alienating and oppressing large sections of the American society, the heteronormative, white, “All-American” figure is being represented to the rest of the world as what it means to be an everyday member of the Western world.  It is essential that there is a variation of individuals and actors within Hollywood film, to safeguard the voices of the non-white experience in America and to offer talented actors, playwriters and directors equal opportunity and a chance to achieve the American dream.

Reference List:

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